June 24, 2008

Pearce wilderness bill draws fire

Diana M. Alba
Las Cruces

Nathan P. Small expresses concern regarding a bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce. (Sun-News photo by Shari Vialpando)

LAS CRUCES — The introduction of a bill last week by U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., has revived controversy about the fate of thousands of acres of public land in Doña Ana County.

Pearce, also a candidate for U.S. Senate, last Wednesday introduced legislation, H.R. 6300, that would remove a temporary wilderness designation from parcels of Doña Ana County land and instead create two new designations for certain swaths. It would also change a federal process for selling public land, opening up 65,000 acres for disposal.

A spokesman for Pearce said the legislation, backed by a group of area ranchers, accomplishes a goal of protecting key lands from development, without hindering law enforcement access. Ranchers applauded the legislation, saying it would keep operations unharmed.

However, conservationists during a news conference objected to the bill, saying it would weaken protection that already exists for special areas and create a large-scale sell-off of lands currently under federal control. They advocated for a competing proposal that would grant federal wilderness to much of the acreage. The designation keeps land from being developed and prohibits mechanized travel in most instances.

Pearce spokesman Brian Phillips said the congressman went about crafting the legislation because he believed a process for drafting the wilderness proposal was flawed.

"There was a notion that everyone agreed with the wilderness proposal, and what we found was that there was considerable disagreement," he said. "We decided to try to forge a better bill that was agreeable to most of the parties that had an interest in the legislation."

Under Pearce's bill, a temporary wilderness designation would be removed from eight regions in Doña Ana County. The designation, created in the "80s and early "90s, is generally managed as if it was wilderness by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; one exception is that vehicles are allowed on designated roads.

In place of the temporary designation, Pearce is proposing that roughly 300,000 acres be classified under two new designations: special preservation areas and rangeland preservation areas. Special preservation areas are proposed for near Picacho Peak and the Doña Ana Mountains and would prevent the sale or lease of that acreage. Rangeland preservation areas — which includes land around the Organ Mountains — would exist to promote grazing and would allow motorized vehicle use on designated roads.

Doña Ana County rancher Tom Cooper applauded Pearce's proposal in a news release.

"We are gratified that Congressman Steve Pearce has recognized our efforts of the past two years by introducing this legislation," he said. "Congressman Pearce remains steadfast in his efforts to meet the desires and expectations of the citizens of the 2nd Congressional District and the state."

Cooper is a member of People for Preserving Our Western Heritage. The group contends wilderness, because of a ban on vehicle use, will hinder ranching operations on public lands.

A crowd of wilderness supporters attended a news conference Monday at the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces to express opposition to Pearce's proposal. Among those in attendance were Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, Doña Ana County Commissioner Oscar Vásquez-Butler and City Councilors Nathan Small, Sharon Thomas and Dolores Connor.

Small, who also works for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, addressed attendees, saying Pearce's legislation, by removing the temporary wilderness status already given to some lands, is a step backward. In addition, he said a provision calling for the sale of 65,000 acres of public lands goes against planned growth and the protection of open space.

"Congressman Pearce's bill calls for the stripping away of permanent protections in places like the Organ Mountains and replacing them with a much-lesser designation ...," he said.

Small called the bill "an attack on our public lands" and said it "seem intended to please a select few special interests."

Asked to clarify the statement, Small said he believed special interests included certain members of the ranching community and off-road vehicle groups, as well as some developers.

Phillips responded, saying those were the groups Pearce felt had been left out of the development of an initial proposal for wilderness that was put forward by conservationists. In addition, he said a provision calling for land sale would allow for input from the local community.

Phillips said the sale of land "cannot violate any city or county ordinance or master plan," he said. "Second of all, it has to be in accordance with the BLM land use plan. There are considerable provisions for groups of all kinds to get involved."

The first wilderness proposal in Doña Ana County surfaced in late 2005 with draft legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici. It would have created about 200,000 acres of wilderness, while freeing up 65,000 acres for eventual sale. But the draft drew criticism from environmental groups and some in the development community, and Domenici never introduced the legislation. Conservationists countered with a proposal of their own to create about 300,000 acres of wilderness and other protected land.

A spokesman for Domenici declined to comment on Pearce's legislation.